Milling in Asia

by Meyer Sosland
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Flour production is sure to grow as demand for bread products in this heavily populated, developing region of the world continues to increase

Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a series of six articles that describes the different approaches to investment in milling technology in the various environments around the world, the varying applications of technology and the skills base of those who operate mills in these often complex and diverse environments.

by Jonathan Bradshaw

This article relates to the milling activities in Asia, primarily focusing on China, Japan, North and South Korea and India. This area is home to two of the most populated nations in the world, and the demand for food in this region is high.

While rice has been the staple diet for many years, the appetite for more refined foods is growing as the region’s economic power and cultural breadth increase.

North and South Korea have long been known for their industrial capability, but the flour milling and feed milling industries in those countries are beginning to emerge as major forces in the economy. With wheat being readily available from Australia, and to some extent China, the capability of the milling industry is growing, enabling noodles and baked goods to compete with rice from a consumption standpoint.

The Koreans have easily adapted and adopted the current technology available from milling engineers. Japanese milling companies have found a ready market for their products, and new mills have been built to progressively increase the capacity of the milling industry in the region. It won’t be long before Korean equipment is offered for sale in western parts of the world as this dynamic industrial powerhouse of a region continues to develop.

For many years, Japan has been respected for the quality of its flour milling equipment. Japan-based Satake Corp. competes all over the world but no more so than on its own doorstep.

With mills producing flour for noodles very efficiently, the cost of flour is extremely competitive. This, in combination with an increasing demand, has led the Japanese to develop and hone their technological skills to a high level. In the western hemisphere, we see the benefit of this technology and the benefit of many years of experience processing rice, where technology exchange between rice processing and wheat milling has led to great developments, debranning being one of them.

The region’s two largest countries in terms of land mass and population are India and China. They have some things in common as far as flour milling technology is concerned, with both nations having had their heyday between the wars, when development and investment was heavy and some very large mills were built.

But for the most part, the developmental paths of India and China have been quite different. The bureaucratic nature of Indian wheat allocation has greatly impacted the industry there, while the Chinese have had more economic considerations that have affected the industry’s development.

In both cases, the population is spread across a wide area and small communities have had their own local arrangements for flour milling. This is particularly true in India, where a plethora of small shop-size grinding units are found in the remote rural areas. The Chinese also have small local mills that still operate with stones or with a handful of roller mills that are used spasmodically, as wheat supplies will allow.

The period of growth in the 1980s saw extensive investment in the Chinese flour milling industry. This was principally driven by improved agricultural practices and a substantial increase in the volume and quality of home-grown wheat that was becoming available.

Mills were built around the country, some in quite remote regions, but all were geographically spread to accommodate the needs of the growing population. The areas just outside the major cities were featured strongly in this investment program. It involved mostly private investment, but there were several sizeable mills built in the areas where industrial development was taking place. All of these mills followed the western style of design.

Years ago, when wheat was harvested by hand, the roads in rural areas of China were often covered with wheat, as vehicles were driven over the grain to thresh it and dislodge it from the glume. This led to the widespread use of destoning machines in Chinese mills, due to the road surface generating a unique problem for the miller when the threshed grain was swept up from the road and brought to the mill.

These mills, built using Western flow designs, utilized Chinese and Japanese manufactured machinery to minimize investment costs. This exercise was not lost on the Chinese, who now manufacture a wide range of milling machinery at several locations around the country. Much is copied from Uzwil, Switzerland-based Buhler AG and Hiroshima, Japan-based Satake, but an increasing amount is made under license in a very economical fashion. As raw materials, steels particularly, improve, we will no doubt see more Chinese equipment offered into the world marketplace. It is also likely that the technology originally developed in the western world will be adopted and perfected by those in the East.

And what of India and its flour milling industry and engineers? Sadly, the engineering status of this vast and beautiful land is somewhat lacking, although a couple of companies make quality roll chills, which are now some of the best in the world. The remainder of the milling engineering industry is still lacking technology skills, and most equipment that is used in India is from outside the country. Buhler has a strong presence, and Satake is once again developing its network, having opened a new office in New Delhi. But there are also a horde of agents and suppliers that import small machines and sell them sporadically around the country.

The Indian Milling School in Mysore runs technical education courses, but generally the technical standard of milling in India is relatively low. It is developing progressively, however, and the Indian millers are extremely versatile and eager to learn whenever and wherever they can.

Their exposure to technological opportunities is limited and they still operate in a wonderfully colonial atmosphere, which makes working there a real joy. Sadly, though, the economics of the industry are in dire straights. With most mills only operating at 50% capacity and with very poor extraction rates, it is not hard to see why the industry is in such a poor financial state, particularly in northern India.

Most flour is still produced in very small facilities using single-phase grinding machinery and most wheat is grown on small backyard plots of land, invariably less than 0.40 hectares. Almost all grain is transported in bags and quality varies dramatically.

There are signs that things are about to change in some areas of India’s flour milling industry. The way in which India has generally embraced technology has been quite remarkable. The growth of the software companies and the telecommunications industry is an example of how rapidly the Indians can adapt themselves to new thinking, new cultural ideals and a new way of life. It shows they are willing, in some cases, to make the necessary changes to rapidly adapt an industry to changing circumstances.

Recent purchases of imported wheat will improve the quality of flour, and there are signs that the developing economic climate is bringing with it a more refined taste for baked goods and cereal products. Chapattis remain the staple diet and the accompaniment for almost all meals in rural areas. While rice also remains a strong staple, there is a growing preference for more refined products among the more affluent members of Indian society.

The milling engineers are sensing an increased technological demand, and although mills remain relatively small in capacity terms, logistics are improving and distribution patterns are developing. These are the early signs of an improving and developing industry and an indicator that rapid growth is imminent.

What can we learn from this area of the world? We are all watching China with bated breath to see what it will do next. We should not be surprised if China becomes the main provider of milling equipment for the Asian region during this century. India, with its population of more than 1 billion, will be aiming to feed itself adequately and is likely to absorb technical resources from the rest of world throughout the next two decades. The Koreans and the Japanese certainly will continue their technological development, and we will see their influence grow in the western world during the next 10 years.

Jonathan Bradshaw is a consultant to the agribusiness and food processing industries, specializing in project management and bespoke training programs through his company, J B Bradshaw Ltd. He has extensive experience in flour and feed milling in Africa, the Americas, Europe and the Caribbean. He may be contacted at: